What happens when your child AND your partner are both at home sick? Secondary drama teacher Julie Leoni discusses the issues raised by her experiences

What a week! My three-year-old, normally so full of bounce, whined his way through Sunday, has spent the rest of the week with a temperature, a cough and very little desire to eat. On Tuesday, his dad came down with it too. So began the nightmare that is being a working mother and a teacher.

Missed lessons

In taking Monday off school I missed five full lessons, including my Year 11 GCSE group. On Tuesday, I had to miss a multi-agency meeting in the county for SEAL, as well as a meeting with a national adviser. I was left feeling guilty, inefficient, embarrassed and trapped. On Wednesday, I dragged myself away from a sobbing, sweaty child when I really didn’t want to. Today, he went to childcare, only for me to get a call to collect him as he was shivering with a temperature. So I left the Year 10 drama exam to be finished by an assistant, set a hurried cover lesson, and exited in a flurry.

Unavailable

After a week like this one, I can understand why the group apparently most discriminated against at work are mothers with children under the age of 11. People say the solution is more family-friendly, flexible working. But how could that ever work in a school, where parents need to know where their children are and how long they are going to be there?

A talented colleague has proposed a solution. He has put the whole Year 9 IT syllabus online. All lesson plans, resources and extension work are available on PCs so that pupils can come in and ‘get on with it’ at their own pace without the input of the teacher. Apparently some of our ‘rum ’uns’ prefer this to listening to a teacher and produce great work.
Presumably, the next step will be students working from home, emailing their queries and submitting work electronically! This might be great for the teachers, but a bit more tricky for the parents who would have to work from home themselves.

The reality is that people need to come together to build relationships if they are to learn. This applies as much to staff as it does to students. And that takes time. Last night, I worked with a group of junior school staff on anger management. After working a full day, they stayed on for a 90-minute twilight session. They were a close team who worked well together and seemed to enjoy the work. Come five o’clock, they were off like a shot. No time to unwind, to reflect on their learning, to make contact with each other after what they had experienced.

Loose and tight

The only solution I can see is for schools to be simultaneously loose and tight. The school day and hours could remain fixed. Within that, though, we could try to organise things in a way that was more responsive to human beings. You and I know that trying to teach a child who has just had a big row, is hard work. What they might actually need is time out to draw and talk. We also know that when we are feeling ill or upset, we are not such great teachers. And I know for sure that when I am off school for any reason, my pupils are getting a poor deal.

Team teaching

At the school which James Wetz is setting up in Bristol, all classes will be team-taught by two specialists with equal responsibility for planning, teaching and marking. Think about it; Jon had a row before he left home this morning, We notice that something is amiss as soon as he walks in. After a quick word, it is agreed that one of us will zone in on him, to see what he needs while the other gets the class sorted.

Another day, my colleague is feeling poorly, but not so ill as to be absent from school. So she catches up on paperwork in a quiet corner, or maybe does some one-to-one work with those middle-range pupils who never get any attention, while I run the lesson. Or today, I get a phone call to say my son is ill; so my colleagues seamlessly steps in, takes over. No cover is required, no attachment lost, no time wasted.

Advantages

The advantages for the school would be fewer cover lessons needed, more in-class support, more pastoral-academic connectivity, increased home-school links and out-of-class activities. More opportunities for real mixed-ability teaching in the same room, maybe even mixed-age or cross-phase teaching. More attention could be paid to learning styles, cross-curricular links and links into the student’s own life, as staff would get to know more about them.

Twilight sessions would become a thing of the past. Instead, someone like me comes in for a late morning session and an afternoon session, during school time, and one teaching partner goes to each, while the other teaches. We could then use PPA time to enthuse, plan and reflect having been treated to some new ideas, without missing out on the rest of life. Imagine being able to negotiate with your partner if you wanted a day off for your birthday in exchange for her coming back late from her holiday at bargain flight prices!

In short, such a school would be characterised by emotional literacy, flexible working, team teaching, more contact. More time to communicate, more time to care and be cared for. That sounds like the kind of school I want for my children.

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